I can’t but help thinking that while the whole boring topic of same-sex marriage rages on and our fellow human beings throw insults at each other across the divide, we are letting the human race slide down the tubes of oblivion in a welter of sentimentality and gross self-indulgence – all for want of not seeing the wood from the trees. The debate is irrelevant for a number of reasons. The debate we should be having is anthropological and because we have abandoned that debate we are all at sea with the same-sex marriage issue and any number of other questions as well.
In the last decade of the 20th century the people of the Irish Republic voted in a referendum which changed their constitution to allow its legislature to pass laws which would govern the dissolution of marriages. Up to that time marriage in that jurisdiction was “until death do us part”. After that constitutional change – passed by the people with the narrowest of margins – marriage ceased to be a “for life” thing. One pro-marriage campaigner at the time argued that if you had divorce enshrined in legislation then your laws had immediately changed the definition of marriage – it ceased to be, in law, what it was before. In Ireland the net result was that the value of marriage plummeted, as it has done throughout the rest of the western world. Marriage became a flashy and expensive ceremony which simply put some kind of stamp of a relationship between – until recently – a man and a woman. The old vows were uttered – until death do us part – but everyone now knows that they do not really mean that in law.
For a multitude of different reasons many people began to by-pass the whole thing altogether. As happened throughout the rest of the world more and more couples began to co-habit rather than get married. With that, since co-habiting couples tend to break up (see Brad Wilcox’s research on the matter, here ) single parenthood became endemic. Across the world some people still get married and they firmly intend that this will be until death does them part. However, the state no longer supports them in their pursuit of this intention – because if one of them were to wilt in that intention, the state would row in behind that partner and dissolve the marriage. No fault divorce is the name of that brand and it is the clear leader where this product is concerned.
Caesar Augustus, grappling with the citizens of Rome’s slide into debauchery tried to tighten up divorce laws in the lex Julia – if divorced by her husband, a wife found guilty of adultery in a special court might sacrifice the return of half her dowry and was forbidden to remarry. His tinkering failed miserably, of course. Our own tinkering, as experience shows, will fare no better.
Parallel with all this in our own time came what has been euphemistically called the sexual revolution – based on a reading of human sexuality which was as anthropologically flawed as was the reading which ended up giving us no-fault divorce. The real problem came when people began to replace serious thinking about our condition as human beings – and the circumstances in which we live together in this world – with sheer sentimentality.
This week, Frank Bruni in the New York Times gives one of the clearest examples I have seen of adult human beings, elected legislators, abdicating their duty to make rational judgements in matters of great concern and surrendering to their emotions in a way which betrays their public trust and their responsibility to those they love in their personal lives. Bruni, of course, is totally approving of such behaviour.
He was cheerleading the onward march of the gay marriage campaign and how the opposition to it crumbled in one Washington State senator’s soul in the face of a totally emotional argument. In the final hours of the debate on the issue in that State, “Senator Brian Hatfield, a Democrat who considers himself a devout Christian and who said in a statement that he ‘went as far as to ask God for a sign.’ It came, he said, in an e-mail he got from former State Representative Betty Sue Morris, a fellow Democrat, who recounted how much she regretted a vote she cast against same-sex marriage in 1996 — and why.
“She shared her story with me on the phone on Monday. ‘In December of 1998,’ began Morris, 70, who then started crying. ‘Excuse me. I just remember it so vividly. My beautiful daughter, Annie, was home for Christmas, and she told us that she was gay.’
“In the days that followed, Morris said, she remembered her vote and ‘felt like I had denied her something. A wholeness. A freedom.’
“‘Here’s this precious child that you love and you care for,’ she added. ‘You don’t want to be a part of making them grieve for anything.’
“As it happens, she said, Annie didn’t even remember the vote. Now 47, she lives in California and married her long-time partner in 2008, just before Proposition 8 overturned the state’s short-lived same-sex marriage law.
“Morris told me: ‘Whenever someone opposes this, I always counsel: you never know. You never know when it will be your child or your grandchild. And you will eat your words.’
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled yesterday that the proposition was unconstitutional. The battle will now probably go to the State Supreme Court.
That is a sad story – but it is sad for far more reasons than Frank Bruni is likely to accept. It is sad ultimately because it show legislators acting like marshmallow idiots and it show a parent treating her child with less responsibility than they would their pet poodle. Wholeness? Freedom? What are we thinking?
The root problem is our total loss of any sense of human beings as human beings, our loss of our sense of their real nature and the needs of that nature. We are substituting that sense with a response built entirely on our emotional feelings. Unless we go back to a serious anthropological understanding of our nature – of which sexuality and relationships are a part – we can forget about all the frills we put on our silly ceremonies and all the names we put on them. Most of them mean nothing already. Soon none of them will mean anything at all.